• 23 September 2020


Until a couple of months ago most people thought about volunteering as something done strictly in person and within the community. The fast acceleration of digital communication due to the pandemic certainly changed the way we see things right now. Throughout the course of this digital explosion it has become clear that many tasks that had to be completed in person are able to be completed online. The possibility to volunteer online has become a reality and it will influence the way we see and interpret volunteering.

You might wonder who really benefits from virtual volunteering. Even if sometimes the benefits are not immediately obvious, it is hard to deny the positive impact of virtual volunteering for both charities and volunteers.

With many people not being able to leave the house or losing their jobs, organizations like VolunteerMatch have been receiving a record number of inquiries about virtual volunteering and more and more organizations started to consider it as a way of strengthening their volunteer base. This explosion of virtual volunteers is in part a result of the amount of free time people have during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that people are looking to fill their time with positive and productive work.There are so many skilled people out there who have wished to volunteer, but lacked the time. By offering the ability to volunteer virtually, organizations have unlocked a powerful new sector of highly skilled people to contribute to their organization. And motivated individuals have found a means to make a difference

A report on the ‘Impact of UN Volunteers Online’ conducted by the United Nations volunteer program in the past years showed that 46% of receiving organizations valued the cost-effectiveness of virtual volunteering, and 41% valued having access to technical expertise which was not available internally.

Nearly everyone involved benefits from virtual volunteering. Volunteering often revolves around taking several hours out of one’s day to travel to a location in order to complete the service to a specific organization. With virtual volunteering, organizations can not only take on more people who are willing to volunteer, but also increase the amount of productivity because of the time saved traveling to the location. Organizations might also see savings in facility costs as more volunteers (and staff) work from home.

Like for all the digital and online occupations, many argued that the virtual element of the process completely removes one of the most obvious benefits of volunteering … the ability to work with people and create social connections. While that is certainly true, it is also true that the connection to new people and the belief in a shared cause will still be able to bring people together in another way. For example, the global aspect of virtual volunteering is one of its greatest strengths. Through dedicated online websites, people from anywhere in the world can contribute and raise awareness for causes that matter most to them and not just the local ones.Opportunities are limitless and can help organizations source any type of role outside of the circle of acquaintances even the most difficult ones.

Volunteers can also see a great benefit to virtual volunteering beyond providing themselves with an outlet that enhances their purpose during this uncertain time. It also gives an opportunity to grow their network in a convenient and familiar place, online. The process of volunteering and getting the ball rolling on someone’s volunteer “career” may often make one back away from beginning in the first place. Between going to places in person, the pressure of time, and the unfamiliarity of the situation there are many aspects of volunteering that may inhibit someone from taking the first step. However, with virtual volunteering many of those pressures are alleviated and the volunteers can put their mind at ease while focusing on the important task of helping their organizations.

How to manage virtual volunteers

Coordinate Time Schedules

The toughest part of the process might be the management of resources that not only are not all in a room but sometimes are in different parts of the country or the world. As virtual volunteers do not require an in-person appearance to provide their expertise, there has been an influx of volunteers from across the globe who are in several different time zones. Even within the United States, volunteers who wish to volunteer from coast to coast must endure a 3 hour time difference that can pose a challenge to people. However, by having overlapping work hours for different teams (if there are many people who are working during the same time) you are able to create a flow of work that enables all parties to work at their own specific time all while benefiting the organization.Once a virtual volunteer team is nearing the end of their expected volunteer work hours, another team in their peak work hours can begin their volunteer shift. Virtual volunteers from around the globe may also want to volunteer for an American organization to put on their resume which could be a great addition to their work experience with minimal fuss.

Set goals and expectations

By providing teams with detailed goals and workflow expectations you are able to have virtual teams complete tasks at their peak work hours. This can be achieved by setting daily goals and deadlines in order to create a sense of work that is involved and important. There is also a great benefit to give volunteers real and constructive critiques on their work as any employer would do. That being said, this is where products like Zoom, Dropbox, Google Drive, and other real time collaboration programs come into play to enhance a team’s efficiency and success. There are also incredible tools like Slack or Sign-Up Genius which allow users to organize and allows volunteers to coordinate easily on an online platform as we discussed in this past article.

Traditional meets virtual

Finally, with managing virtual volunteers you want to treat them as if they are “traditional” volunteers and set the same expectations and level of engagement. The volunteers you are working with may be incredibly skilled and are sincerely looking for an avenue for their professional development all while doing good for the community, so it’s important to make a virtual volunteer feel involved and part of the project.

Taking everything into consideration, and while virtual volunteering is a wonderful resource for everybody, it does not come without its downsides. There certainly is something more involved in regard to working in person, one can also argue that it is also more fulfilling. People who volunteer are more likely than not people who are go-getters and individuals who have a massive drive to make a true difference in the world and sometimes that can feel inhibited by doing tasks virtually. While working virtually there is seldom a moment where you feel totally accomplished because you are most likely sitting down, alone, and in front of a computer. In stark contrast, compare that with seeing the smile on someone’s face as you shake their hand and they tell you what an awesome job you did, there is truly no comparison to that feeling virtually. Another key aspect of volunteering virtually is that we are at the mercy of the internet and there may be stability issues if every part of an individual’s work is done online. We have all faced a time where the connection was simply not working, a file didn’t save properly, or you could not connect to a meeting for whatever reason. Stating this fact, virtual volunteering may also hinder people who are older and not as internet savvy from being able to do the volunteer work they have been accustomed to over their perhaps decades of working alongside organizations in person.

In conclusion, the rise of more prevalent virtual volunteering is perhaps a silver lining during this incredibly challenging time and more than likely will continue to be a widespread form of volunteering going forward. While there are several negatives and issues with this form of volunteering, the benefits as stated above truly outweigh any negative aspects it may have. Giving organizations the ability to recruit people who are highly skilled and available for virtual work helps tremendously and gives people who may otherwise would never be able to volunteer the ability to connect. While virtual volunteering is still a subject that is evolving, we can imagine that in the coming years there will be even more resources for organizations and virtual volunteers alike.

Check-out our guide on how to successfully onboard virtual volunteers here and subscribe to our blog!

Author: Katia Sperandio, for WebServes

Katia Sperandio is currently a marketing and communications specialist with extensive experience advising organizations of all sizes on developing and managing effective digital media marketing programs. Katia holds a Masters of Arts degree from the prestigious Bocconi University in Milan, Italy which is consistently ranked one of the top international business schools.

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